Category Archives: vegetables

fennel2

Essentially…

(a recipe for braised fennel yum and exploration of what it is we all do)

Often, while sitting at my little market stall, I am approached by people who want to know what a herb DOES.

People are always interested in the function of person, plant or object alike, because we want to know how best it can serve us. But when it comes to people and plants (because objects are often born with a job in mind, like, for example, a kettle, whose function, first and foremost, is to boil water. All other functions, say, to be beautiful and to match the curtains are secondary) I am loathe to start spouting off functions.

Of course, at a party it is really difficult to walk up to a person and say ‘who are you?’. Most likely you’ll be given a name and a job in response, which will leave you in the same place as if you asked ‘what do you do’. And quite honestly, the same thing happens with a plant. A question of ‘who are you’ to a plant will often be met with a use of some kind. For example, me asking a lovely desert lavender plant the other day was met with the image of a fevered man being fed a hot tea of desert lavender flowers. Is desert lavender (as if desert lavender was a person) a hot tea for fever? Among many other things. But if people and plants gave up all their secrets upon first meeting each other then what point would there be in developing relationships and getting to know each other?

Essence has to be worked for, and understood without words. I’d venture to say that the second you start to describe somebody with words, the essence is gone (try describing the person you love the most in a series of sentences and they just fall flat). And the same goes with plants. Reading a list of indications on a page will only give you so much information. To understand it, you have to dive in, get to know it. Taste it. Feel it. Let it become a part of you and flow from your pores. Only then do you start to understand what person or plant is made of. Only then do you start to understand how they fare in different situations and how there are some things they will do even if its not in their job description (maybe they’d only do it for you because you took the time to get to know them) and then some things that they do automatically because its in their very nature. Plants and people, as far as I see it, are very alike in this manner.

Fennel is one of those things- yes, it’s good for flatulence, and yes, it tastes delicious, but to say that it is these functions is to reduce it so a list of facts. Energetically, one would say that its warming, soothing, moistening. That it relaxes spasm and has a slight expectorant effect. That it excels in cough syrups and cramp formulas and can soothe a colicky belly and sore throat alike. But it’s more than that still. It has an affinity for the feminine- that moist, dark, retreating principle- and the seeds are a bit more expansive and action-oriented, though the whole thing is commonly used to increase milk production… The leaves, when munched on or tea-d with are sweet and soothing and can make most borderline disgusting formulas much more palatable. Also, according to Culpepper, tea made of the leaves, seeds and roots will ‘make people lean who are too fat’, but you didn’t hear it from me (I think this is because fennel will, in fact, make you feel sated even when you are not).

Unfortunately there’s very little way to convey it being more than that other than with a few chicken-scratches and possibly an interpretive dance with a big hug at the end. So let my little list and description be enough right now, until you go and cook some up for yourself (after which you’ll return to say ‘yes, yes, I understand completely, it can do all that and so much more, let’s make some chicken-scratches and interpretive dance together, to signify everything that it is and then go back to drinking our fennel tea, glad for its flatulence-dispersing and indigestion-soothing effect, but understanding that it is not (nor is anybody) its job description).


Braised fennelly goodness*

As many fennel bulbs as you have people

1 teaspoon fennel seeds per bulb

1/4 cup white wine/ champagne or leftover apple cider. The recipe is non-specific, just use whatever is lying around leftover from another meal.

Butter. 1 tb per fennel bulb.

Oil. Olive oil. White fir infused olive oil if you have it but a good slightly peppery one will do in case you don’t.

1/2 tsp salt.

A good crunch of pepper.

Dear readers, the first thing you should do with a bulb of fennel is to chop off the fronds with one swift and confident motion. The purpose of this is twofold: first, to show that you are not afraid of something strange, and second is to show your cutting board who is boss. Take the fronds, wrap the stalk-ends in a rubber band, then tie that rubber band up somewhere dry with a string. I like to keep my hanging herbs in plain view, partly because it looks slightly witchy and slightly like a French provincial cottage kitchen, but also because when I can see them, I will use them, whereas if they sit drying in a closet somewhere I will only remember after a year when they have gone brown and the fragrance has been lost to the surrounding bedsheets. You can do this with a few fennel bulbs, and you’ll be left with a big bunch of hanging plant matter, and a few bulbs lined up neatly on your cutting board.

And this is where it gets fun. My favourite thing to do with fennel involves a hot oven and a cast iron pan. Chop the bottom off the bulb, and then chop the fennel bulb swiftly in half down the middle, from bottom to nose. Lay each half flat, and then slice into quarter-inch pieces, which you can toss immediately into a cast-iron pan. Do this with all the bulbs until there are none left, then drizzle them with the olive oil, sprinkle over the fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Pour in the wine/champagne/cider, dot with butter, and put in a hot oven (preheated to 375) for about 30 minutes. When its done, you’ll know it, because your house will smell like sweet anise and green and cooked wine. And most likely somebody (perhaps you?) will be clawing at the oven in desperation. Remove from the oven, chop a few of those frond-pieces that you have hanging nearby and sprinkle them over the top. Serve in its pan, with a cool drink and a big chunk of fresh, warm bread.

*This is a technical name.

IMG_9224

The loveliest sprout

I can’t believe I’m doing this to you. I mean, I hate sprouts. Really truly think they smell like socks and dirt and they make you fart to boot.

It’s all Jamie’s fault. We were getting our weekly shopping and he saw brussels sprouts and started jumping up and down with excitement. Anybody who gets that excited about something that most people hate really deserves to be given a chance, don’t you think?

Well it turns out that he has a special way of cooking them. Which means that it’s not his fault at all, it’s his step-dad’s fault. Gary, who taught Jamie how to work hard and to wash dishes and to cook brussels sprouts. Gary’s dish-washing technique, by the way, is one that Jamie has tried to teach me repeatedly. I am unteachable. I leave streaks on my dishes, and sometimes there’s still food there. This is because I learned to wash dishes from my dad, who was on a boat most of the time. Washing dishes on a boat is not about getting them as clean as possible, it’s about using as little water as possible, thus our cleaning routine went something like “run under water, rub with hand, turn off water and dry”. The look of horror on Jamie’s face when he first saw me doing this (granted, he’d been eating off my dishes for a while) was almost funny. Funny because I am pretty much forbidden to do the dishes in our house now. But not quite funny because I really had no idea I was doing it wrong in the first place.

So anyway, after hearing about Gary’s great dish-washing technique for so long (and never quite being able to master it; I think impatience plays a role here), Gary came to visit us for a couple of days. And he asked for a glass of water, and then I went to get it and there were no clean glasses. And with Gary standing right there I had to wash a glass.

Let me tell you, I actually broke a sweat. I mean, here was Gary who knows how to wash dishes so well that he actually has a technique, and me who knows how to wash dishes so badly that she’s not allowed to do them very often, and Gary wants to drink out of a glass that I will be washing. My hands were shaking as I tried to remember the fold-cloth-over-lip-and-press-hard thing. He didn’t look horrified. Good sign. Then he actually accepted water and drank it. Double good sign. I think he probably wondered why this weird girl was shaking while doing dishes.

I was chatting to my friend Mark last week when he mentioned that he was force fed brussels sprouts as a kid. He hates them so much that BS to him does not mean bull poo. Nope, it means brussels sprouts. I thought this kind of funny. My hatred really didn’t run that deep, I just found them kinda pongy. But I have been converted. And it’s not just me. My 13 year old sister who HATES anything cabbagey, who told me dubiously that she’d try it but only because she’ll try anything once, actually loved it so much that she made it herself the next day. Yes, I converted a teenager to brussels sprouts land. If that’s not enough to convince you then you’re obviously too hard a sell.

Sprouts, the good way

1 lb brussels sprouts

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

2 tb butter

2 tb olive oil

 

Slice the brussels sprouts into thin strips, about 1/8″ wide. Get a skillet nice and hot, then reduce to medium, add the oil and butter, and throw in the sprouts. Sprinkle over the salt and pepper, and then let them sit there for about 2 minutes. With a spatula, start to move them around a little– they should be golden brown in places. Then let them sit another minute or so. Then move them around again. They should be browning in some places, and bright green in others. After about 5 minutes total, remove from heat and serve.

IMG_6492

Choucroute: cooking with juniper berries

I have friends in high places. I mean, literally high places– up in the mountains, where juniper trees grow everywhere. Soft, succulent, aromatic juniper berries. Last week, I received a mystery box in the mail. Mystery, except for that familiar fresh woodsy smell that met me as I picked it up. And then I started screaming. If you haven’t seen a plant person get excited over a box of plants on their front doorstep, then picture an eleven-year old girl and that Justin Bieber guy, and you get the general idea.

Juniper berries make fantastic medicine. They’re fantastic for low-grade urinary tract infections, or even those ones that never seem to go away. They’re also great for digestion– anything that’s lovely and aromatic usually is– so they’re great to cook with. I made a tincture with most of the berries, and then remembered a recipe tucked into a corner of “The Man Who Ate Everything”.

It was all Jeffrey Steingarten’s fault. I blame the entire glory of this dish on him. When I first got his books, I read both cover to cover in a matter of days, and then gave them to Jam, who also read them completely. Over the next week or so, we started referring to Mr. Steingarten first, as “Jeffrey” and then, as “His Eminence”. As in “Oh man, this is the best {X} I’ve ever made, I think we should invite His Eminence over for dinner and make this.” or as in “Oh man, this restaurant is great. I wonder if His Eminence has ever been here”. Or even “I wish His Eminence had more books out, because I miss him.” Yes, I said that. If you’re reading, Mister Steingarten, please take note.

In my favourite of his articles, he drags his wife around Alsace, eating choucroute garnie at every stop. I dog-eared the page with the recipe, thought about it for weeks on end, talked about how I wanted to make choucroute to anyone who would listen, and then slowly forgot about it as newer, cooler recipes came along.

Until I was standing there in my little office with a handful of fresh juniper berries. Then I remembered, and ran over to my bookshelf to find the book with the dog-eared page. Except it wasn’t there. I remembered lending it to my mum a few months ago. After cursing her (sorry mum) and calling her frantically for a word-by-word readout of the entire article and recipe (she didn’t answer… obviously not understanding that she is supposed to be at my beck and call every moment of the day (sorry mum)), I plunged into a state of despair.

Until Jam cleverly pointed out that I’ve made some good recipes in the past. “Screw His Eminence,” he said (sorry, Your Eminence). “Make your own!”

And so I did. And you know what… I don’t care how good Mister Steingarten’s recipe is. This is quite possibly one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

Choucroute Garnie a la Rebecca

Serves 4, with leftovers

For the spice mix:

15 dried juniper berries

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp coarse salt

1 tsp coriander

For the bouquet:

1/2 bunch parsley

15 fresh juniper berries (dried will work)

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp black papper

1/2 tsp coriander

2 lb beef roast (at room temperature)

1 large onion (sliced)

1 large sweet potato (cubed)

2 stalks celery (chopped)

1 tsp salt

6 cloves garlic

1 packet of bacon (chopped into 1-inch pieces)

1 packet of sausages (I used andouille)

4 cups sauerkraut

2 cups white wine

2 cups chicken stock

A few hours before you want to cook, grind up the spice mix with a pestle and mortar, and pat into the surface of the roast. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375.

In a heavy-bottomed casserole dish (one large enough to hold all these ingredients), fry up the bacon until slightly crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Then, turn the heat up high, and sear the piece of meat in the bacon fat (if there’s not enough fat then you can add some extra lard or olive oil) until it’s crispy and browned on all sides. Set aside.

In the same fat, turn down the heat slightly, and cook the onions, sweet potato and celery, until transparent. Add the garlic, and cook for another minute or so, then add the sauerkraut, wine and chicken stock. Bring to the boil, and cook for five minutes or so, then add the meat and the bouquet. I find that the easiest way to make a bouquet is to use one of those disposable tea bags, however you can also tie the herbs up in a piece of muslin. If you have neither, I’d even consider using a [clean] old sock, but don’t tell that to my dinner guests.

Cover the casserole dish, and put in the oven. Cook for 1 1/2- 2 hours, until the meat is tender. About ten minutes before it’s ready, heat up a frying pan, and pan fry the sausages in lard or olive oil. I usually pour enough white wine into the pan so that it comes about half way up the height of the sausages, and then let it cook off, then toss them in the remaining liquid.

To serve, ladle the sauerkraut mixture onto a serving dish, then place the roast on top, and the pieces of sausages all around the edges, sprinkle with the bacon. The remaining liquid in the pot can be poured into a jug and used as the most delicious gravy in human history.

Serve with a loaf of crusty bread and lots of butter.

For more information on Juniper, plus some great writing about wildcrafting, check out my friend Butter’s blog post on juniper-dove kebabs!